by Philip Ryken
We need daily pardon and daily protection as well as daily provision. So after Jesus taught us to pray, “give us today our daily bread,” He also taught us to pray, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:12–13).
These petitions are for fallen sinners — for people who are often tempted to sin, and sometimes give in. Even before we face these temptations, we should ask God to keep us safe from what John Calvin called in his Institutes “the violent assaults of Satan.” In asking not to be led into temptation, we are not requesting that we will never be tempted at all, but that when we are tempted God will deliver us from Satan’s deadly attacks.
But what about the times when we do sin and fall into spiritual debt? How should we pray then?
The first thing to do when we fall into debt is to figure out how much we owe. So what debt do we owe to God because of our sin? We are guilty for what we have done and for what we have left undone, for sins of omission as well as commission. Our debt includes secret sins as well as public ones, deliberate sins as well as sins committed in relative ignorance. And when all our sins are added together, they place us in God’s eternal debt.
Yet Jesus has taught us to ask our Father to help us. “Our Father,” we are to pray, “forgive us our debts.” With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have. Then we ask Him to forgive us outright. And because He is our loving Father, God does what we ask. When we go to Him weighed down with the debt of all our sin, He does not sit down with us to work out a payment plan. Instead, He offers full and free forgiveness.
When God remits our debts He is well within His legal rights, for the Scripture says that He took our sin away, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). This vivid image corresponds to the way debts were sometimes cancelled in the ancient world. When a debtor finally paid off all his debts, his creditor would strike a nail through the certificate of debt. In the same way, when Christ died on the cross, God drove a nail right through the infinite debt of our sin. There are no longer any outstanding charges against us.
The debts we ask God to forgive when we pray the way Jesus taught us to pray are the very debts that were crucified with Christ at Calvary. When Christ died on the cross, all our debts were cancelled. The Greek word for “cancel” (exaleipho), which Paul uses in Colossians 2, means “to blot out” or “to wipe away.” It means that the mountain of debt we once owed to God because of our sin has been completely erased.
There are still some things we owe to God, however — not out of debt, but out of gratitude — and one of those things is forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12 nkjv). From this petition we learn that we are not the only ones in debt. We have debtors of our own, people who owe us something for what they have done to us. And we are called to forgive them.
This is a hard teaching. The prayer for forgiveness is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that comes with a condition attached. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. Yet we find it hard to forgive. How, then, can we be forgiven?
To illustrate the difficulty, consider something John Wesley said in his missionary days when he was having a difficult time with General Oglethorpe, the proud and pitiless founder of colonial Georgia. Oglethorpe made this startling comment: “I never forgive.” “Then I hope, sir,” replied Wesley, “you never sin.” Wesley was thinking of the Lord’s Prayer, which implies that the unforgiving are unforgiven.
Asking for our own forgiveness takes priority over offering it to others. If we had to forgive before we could be forgiven, then forgiveness would become a work, something we had to do to be saved. Yet salvation comes by grace alone. We cannot work off our debts, we can only ask for them to be canceled. But now, having been forgiven, by the grace of God we are also able to forgive. Indeed, our ability to forgive is one of the surest signs of our having been forgiven. Those who are truly forgiven, truly forgive.
Giving such forgiveness can be very costly, and the more someone has hurt us, the harder it is to forgive. Yet forgiveness also brings great joy, not only to the forgiven, but especially to the forgiver. The Greek term for “forgiveness” (aphiemi) comes from a word that means “to let go.” Forgiveness is a release, a letting go of self-destructive feelings like anger, bitterness, and revenge.
Richard Wurmbrand once met a man who had experienced the divine release that comes through forgiveness. Wurmbrand was in a Communist prison in Romania at the time, lying in a prison cell reserved for those who were dying. In the cot on his right was a pastor who had been beaten so badly that he was about to die. On his left was the very man who had beaten him, a Communist who was later betrayed and tortured by his comrades.
One night the Communist awakened in the middle of a nightmare and cried out, “Please, pastor, say a prayer for me. I have committed such crimes, I cannot die.” The pastor feebly got up, stumbled past Wurmbrand’s cot, and sat at the bedside of his enemy.
As he watched, Wurmbrand saw the pastor caress the hair of the man who had tortured him and speak these amazing words: “I have forgiven you with all of my heart, and I love you. If I who am only a sinner can love and forgive you, more so can Jesus who is the Son of God and who is love incarnate. Return to Him. He longs for you much more than you long for Him. He wishes to forgive you much more than you wish to be forgiven. You just repent.” There, in the prison cell, the Communist began to confess all his murders and tortures. When he had finished, the two men prayed together, embraced, and then returned to their beds, where each died that very night.
The Romanian pastor had learned how to forgive. He had learned this from Jesus, who first forgave his debts, and then taught him to forgive his debtors. This same Jesus forgives us and delivers us, for by His death on the cross He has canceled our debt and destroyed the power of the Devil.